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Graduate School Admissions Guide

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Graduate school is an opportunity to advance your education and further your career. While post-pandemic applications are up, actual enrollments are down, so right now is as good a time as ever to send in your application.

One huge perk of graduate school is that your career earnings are likely to be higher than if you only had a bachelor’s degree.

For 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an annual median wage difference of $11,908 (or $229 weekly). And that’s just the difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s – other professional or doctoral degrees can lead to even higher annual incomes.

graduate school admission guide: earnings and unemployment rates
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So, what steps should you take to get started? We’ve got you covered.

In this graduate school admissions guide, we’ll talk about the decision to attend graduate school, the types of graduate programs available, how to choose the right school, and what you need to deliver a stellar application packet.

Should You Pursue Graduate School?

Pursuing graduate school was one of the best decisions I ever made, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. I put in a lot of hours mastering my skill, so to speak. If you’re interested in doing the same, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Why do I want to go to graduate school?
  • What do I want to do with my graduate degree after I receive it?
  • How will I choose the right program for me?
  • How do I apply to graduate school?
  • What is the cost of graduate school, and who will foot the bill?
  • Will graduate school be worth it?
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Finding answers to these questions can help you obtain clarity about your path forward before you invest your time, energy, and money into the application process. Why? Because, regardless of your motivation, you want to be sure the experience will provide a sufficient return on investment. It might even help to draft a pros and cons list to get your thoughts and concerns out and onto a piece of paper.

Will Graduate School Be Worth It Financially?

This is honestly the most important question you need to ask when considering whether to pursue graduate school. Is graduate school worth it?

There are, of course, circumstances that absolutely warrant attending graduate school. For example, entry into professional fields like law and medicine require advanced schooling and credentials – and the payoff can be worthwhile. Conversely, you may be in a unique position of having an employer who is willing to pay for your degree and you simply want to take advantage of that benefit. 

However, there are many graduate programs and degrees that aren’t worth it. In fact, a recent study of 14,000 graduate programs found that 40% of masters’ degrees had no return or a negative return (meaning you paid more than you’ll ever earn back in your lifetime). 

The study found that 97% of master’s degrees in computer science, engineering, and nursing offer at least some positive return.

However, the study also found that 85% of masters degrees in the arts, humanities, and theology had a negative return. Surprisingly, 62% of MBAs also had a negative return. We discuss the MBA return on investment more here.

The bottom line is that before you commit to graduate school, please do your homework on the expected financial outcome of your decision.

Types Of Graduate Degrees

Graduate school typically refers to the work one does in pursuit of a master’s or Ph.D. These degrees may or may not be needed for your chosen career field. Conversely, law and medical school, while technically also graduate studies (meaning students must first earn a bachelor’s degree), are required prerequisites to entering a career in law or medicine. They are often referred to as professional degrees because they prepare students to work in very specific professions, requiring certain academic and licensing attainment.

Master’s Degree

The master’s degree is often referred to as a sprint because it only takes one to two years of full-time enrollment to complete. Common master’s degrees include a Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS), though specialized master’s programs are also available. This includes a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and a Master of Public Administration (MPA). Master’s degrees provide advanced exposure to a specific field and prepare students for more specialized yet versatile careers.

Doctoral Degree

If a master’s is a sprint, then a doctorate is a marathon. This degree requires several more years of study, typically four to seven years beyond a bachelor’s degree. It provides even more specialized training and prepares students for careers in academic and research-focused fields.

Professional Degree

A professional doctorate is the highest academic credential in its respective field. For example, a Juris Doctor (JD) is the highest academic achievement needed to become a lawyer, or a Doctor of Medicine (MD) to become a health practitioner. Professional degrees vary in length and focus on practical training specific to their field.

Applying To Graduate School

So, you’ve decided to go to graduate school – that’s one key decision out of the way! Now, what are you doing to prepare for the application process ahead? While many pieces of the application packet are general components required by all graduate programs, the degree you pursue will ultimately decide which entrance exam you’ll take and how to tailor your personal statement.

You can use the breakdown of application requirements below to identify your path forward.

Admission Requirements

Aside from the obvious requirement of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, some grad programs will look a bit deeper before admitting you. For example, most MBA programs require a bachelor’s from one of two types of accredited institutions.

Additionally, because graduate school builds on your existing knowledge and skillset, some programs require applicants to have at least some amount of work experience before being accepted. This is especially common for professional degrees.

In general, these are the application requirements to keep in mind:

  • Transcripts: Applicants are required to submit transcripts from all previous universities. Not only do transcripts indicate your aptitude for academic success, but they also detail all coursework you completed.
  • Minimum GPA: This is of particular importance, as professional degrees typically demand a higher GPA of their prospective students. However, a GPA within the 3.0-4.0 range should put you in a good position with most schools.
  • Test Score(s): Applicants are required to submit scores from the respective standardized test taken for their program. (More on this below because this is where program requirements differ the most).
  • Letters of Recommendation: Almost all programs ask for at least one letter of recommendation to verify your qualifications and past achievements.
  • Personal Statement: Applicants are often asked to submit a personal statement (or “letter of intent”) to demonstrate your personal qualities and characteristics, as well as your interest in and commitment to graduate studies.

Graduate School Exams

Admissions exams deserve their own section because they can be the most anxiety-inducing aspect of the whole process. The test you take will depend on the degree you want to pursue, and there are differences in what these tests look for, so make sure you sign up for the right one.

You’ll typically take the GRE to enter into a standard master’s or doctorate program. The GRE tests critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical writing and is known to be accepted by a wide variety of graduate programs. Here’s an overview of the exam:

Graduate Record Exam (GRE)

Quantitative Reasoning (Two Sections)

Section 1: 21 min.

Section 2: 26 min.

Section 1: 12

Section 2: 15

Verbal Reasoning 

(Two Sections)

Section 1: 18 min.

Section 2: 23 min.

Section 1: 12

Section 2: 15

The GMAT was created specifically for MBA programs and is accepted by more than 2,400 academic institutions. The GMAT tests your analytical writing- and problem-solving abilities, as well as data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills. There are subtle differences in how the GRE and GMAT are structured, the types of questions asked, and total test time, but they are typically accepted by schools interchangeably. 

Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)

Analytical Writing Assessment

The LSAT is specific to – and a required component of – your law school admissions packet. Unlike the GRE or GMAT, your LSAT score is based on the total number of questions answered correctly. All test questions are weighted the same, so the total number of questions you get right matters more than any you get wrong.

Law School Admissions Test (LSAT)

The MCAT is required for acceptance into any medical school in the U.S. and most in Canada. Like the other tests listed, the MCAT assesses your ability to problem-solve and think critically. However, it also tests your knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science principles that are requisite concepts in the field of medicine. Take a look at the breakdown below:

Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

After Submitting Your Application

After you submit your application packet, it’s time to wait. The admissions committee will review your materials along with those of other prospective students. Graduate schools receive hundreds of applications each year, so try to be patient with this part of the process.

Programs that stick to a December or January application deadline often send out acceptance notices by the end of March. However, programs that accept applications on a rolling basis can likely respond with a decision in 8-10 weeks. Some schools like to hold admission interviews, so you could use your down time to prepare for those.

Bringing It All Together

Deciding to pursue a graduate degree is exciting, but the application process can be costly and time-consuming. Focusing on why you want to attend graduate school, what you hope to do after, and how much school you can realistically afford will help narrow your search. Then, switch gears to assembling the items needed for your admissions packet, keeping these pro tips in mind:

  • Build out a timeline from present day to the admissions deadline and work backward from that deadline to schedule your testing date.
  • Reach out and talk to actual graduate students in the program you’re considering.
  • Visit the campus to get a feel for the surrounding community and environment.

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